Where Good Ideas Come From

Where Good Ideas Come From


  • “The patterns are simple, but followed together, they make for a whole that is wiser than the sum of its parts. Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle; reinvent. Build a tangled bank.”
  • “The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table.”
  • “Legendary innovators like Franklin, Snow, and Darwin all possess some common intellectual qualities—a certain quickness of mind, unbounded curiosity—but they also share one other defining attribute. They have a lot of hobbies.”
  • “Chance favors the connected mind.” 

The above quotes are from Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.  The book was a finalist for the 800CEORead award for best business book of 2010 and was ranked as one of the year’s best books by The Economist.

The book argues that innovative thinking is a slow and gradual process based on the concept of the “slow hunch” rather than an instant moment of inspiration. I mean, we have all grown with the Archimedes ‘Eureka!’ story and believe that ideas come to lone geniuses in a flash.

However, the truth is that big ideas follow a more gradual process based on the seven patterns of innovation that are seen again and again in culture and in nature.

  • The Adjacent Possible. Johnson describes the adjacent possible as “a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself…[it] captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation.” We come out with new ideas, with new ways of seeing the world, by learning from ideas of other people or from our own previous ideas.
  • Liquid Networks. Ideas are like networks; they are born when different elements connect. In 18th century coffeehouses in London, political leaders, merchants, bankers and ship captains, the powerful people of the times, used to meet and discuss their problems and challenges. This interaction of diverse people would lead to the development of innovative solutions to challenges.

For ideas to incubate and flourish, it is important that they happen in networks where disparate ideas are encouraged to collide and lead to the development of a valid, powerful idea.

  • The Slow Hunch. It takes time for a number of hunches to come together and become something valuable. The best ideas could be the result of days, months or even years of looking at a problem and pursuing the hunches before they merge into a powerful idea.

Slow hunches can be forgotten because our daily work can get in the way. That is why it is very important to note down all the hunches that come our way. Hopefully, all the hunches will, someday, come together to form a totally different solution.

  • Serendipity. Ideas sometimes happen by accident. That is because the different aspects and hunches that a person is looking at may not be making immediate sense. But, out of the blue, a great idea may just pop out.
  • Error. Many a times, ideas come in environments that are a bit chaotic and error filled. That is because chaos and errors lead to unpredictability. And this unpredictability can lead to innovation. 

Therefore, don’t be afraid of making errors. Don’t be afraid of failures. But if you do fail, learn from it and move on – fast!

  • Exaptation. As defined by Charles Darwin and others, exaptation is a process in which a feature acquires a function that was not acquired through natural selection. In our context, exaptation is all about exploring new uses for already existing ideas. Exaptation is all about ideas accidentally tackling problems they were not originally meant to.
  • Platforms. Creativity is no one’s birthright. Anyone can come out with ideas and companies that create platforms that allow for a free flow of ideas are likely to come out with great ideas. Diversity is great for generating good ideas.

Johnson argued that ideas have to be fully liberated to spark innovation. And this happens best when the environment is less money driven and less individualistic. Opening up ideas to others is a good practice and that is why, in today’s world, open-source environments can a great way to generate ideas.

As marketers, we have to keep coming up with new ideas. As Johnson has shown, ideas won’t come to us in a flash. We must have an open mind. We must have a broad range of interests. We must discuss hunches and ideas with others. We should let hunches and ideas incubate. Only then will we come up with that BIG idea that will change the fortune of our company. Or that will encourage us to the route of entrepreneurship.

The attached video by Johnson is essential viewing; it will give you a good idea of where good ideas come from.

Visual courtesy: https://www.flickr.com/photos/freddy-click-boy/

About author

This article was written by andy

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